Fanatics Attack

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I have called myself an expert on comparative fanaticism. This is no joke. If you ever hear of a school or university starting a department of comparative fanaticism, I am hereby applying for a teaching post. As a former Jerusalemite, as a recovered fanatic, I feel I’m fully qualified for that job. Perhaps it is time that every school, every university teach at least a couple of courses in comparative fanaticism, because it is everywhere. I don’t mean just the obvious manifestations of fundamentalism and zealotry. I don’t refer just to those obvious fanatics, the ones we see on television, in places where hysterical crowds wave their fists against the cameras while screaming slogans in languages we don’t understand. No, fanaticism is almost everywhere, and its quieter, more civilized forms are present all around us and perhaps inside of us as well.

Do I know the anti-smokers who will burn you alive for lighting a cigarette near them! Do I know the vegetarians who will eat you alive for eating meat! Do I know the pacifists, some of my colleagues in the Israeli peace movement, who are willing to shoot me in the head just because I advocate a slightly different strategy on how to make peace with the Palestinians!

I’m not saying, of course, that anyone who raises his or her voice against anything is a fanatic. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone who has a strong opinion is a fanatic. I’m saying that the seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising self-righteousness, the plague of many centuries.

Of course, there are degrees of evil. A militant environmentalist may be uncompromisingly self-righteous, but he or she will cause very little harm compared to, say, an ethnic cleanser or terrorist. Yet all fanatics have a special attraction to, a special taste for kitsch. Too often the fanatic can only count up to one; two is too big a figure for him or her. At the same time, you will find that many fanatics are hopelessly sentimental: They often prefer feeling to thinking and have a fascination with their own death. They despise this world and feel eager to trade it for “heaven.” Their heaven, however, is usually conceived of as the everlasting happiness that occurs in the conclusion of bad movies.

A dear friend and colleague of mine, the Israeli novelist Sammy Michael, once took a long intercity car drive with a chauffeur who was giving him the usual lecture on how urgent it is for us Jews to kill all the Arabs. Sammy listened to him, and rather than screaming, “What a terrible man you are. Are you a Nazi, are you a fascist?” he decided to deal with it differently.

He asked the chauffeur: “And who do you think should kill the Arabs?”

The chauffeur said: “What do you mean? Us! The Israeli Jews! We must! There is no choice, just look at what they are doing to us every day!”

“But who exactly do you think should carry out the job? The police? Or the army? Or maybe the fire brigade? Or the medical teams? Who should do the job?”

The chauffeur scratched his head and said: “I think it should be fairly divided between every one of us, every one of us should kill some of them.”

Sammy, still playing the game, said: “OK, suppose you are allocated a certain residential block of your hometown of Haifa and you knock on every door, or ring the doorbell, asking: ‘Excuse me, sir, or excuse me, madam, do you happen to be an Arab?’ and if the answer is yes, you shoot them. Then you finish your block and you are about to go home, but just as you turn to go home you hear a baby crying. Would you go back and shoot this baby? Yes or no?”

There was a moment of quiet and then the chauffeur said to Sammy: “You know, you are a very cruel man.”

Now, this is a significant story because there is something in the nature of the fanatic that is essentially sentimental and at the same time lacks imagination. And this sometimes gives me hope, albeit a very limited hope, that injecting some imagination into people may help cause the fanatic to feel uneasy. This is not a quick remedy, this is not a quick cure, but it may help.

Conformity and uniformity, the urge to belong and the desire to make everyone else belong, may be the most widespread if not the most dangerous forms of fanaticism. Remember the moment in that wonderful film, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when Brian says to the crowd of his would-be disciples, “You are all individuals!” and the crowd shouts back, “We are individuals!” except one of them who says sheepishly, in a small voice, “I’m not,” and everyone angrily rushes him. The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change–the common inclination to improve your neighbor, mend your spouse, engineer your child, or straighten up your brother, rather than let them be. The fanatic is a most unselfish creature. The fanatic is a great altruist.

In fact, often the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself. He wants to save your soul, he wants to redeem you, he wants to liberate you from sin, from error, from smoking, from your faith or from your faithlessness, he wants to improve your eating habits, or to cure you of your drinking or voting habits. The fanatic cares a great deal for you; he is always either falling on your neck because he truly loves you or else he is at your throat in case you prove to be unredeemable. And, in any case, topographically speaking, falling on your neck and being at your throat are almost the same gesture.

One way or another, the fanatic is more interested in you than in himself, for the simple reason that the fanatic has very little self or no self at all. Osama bin Laden’s heirs do not just hate the West. It’s not that simple. Rather, I think they want to save your souls; they want to liberate you, us, from our awful values, from materialism, from pluralism, from democracy, from freedom of speech, from women’s liberation . . . all these, the Islamic fundamentalists maintain, are bad for your health.

Bin Laden’s immediate target may have been New York, or Madrid, but his goal was to turn moderate, pragmatic Muslims into “true” believers, into his kind of Muslim. Islam, in bin Laden’s view, was weakened by “American values,” and to defend Islam, you must not just hit the West and hit it hard, you must eventually convert the West. Peace will prevail only when the world is converted not to Islam, but to the most fundamentalist and fierce and rigid form of Islam. It will be good for you. Bin Laden loved you; by his way of thinking, September 11 was a labor of love.

Often, these things begin in the family. It begins precisely with the common urge to change a beloved relative for his or her own good. It begins with the urge to sacrifice oneself for the sake of a dearly loved neighbor; it begins with the urge to tell a child of yours, “You must become like me not like your mother” or “You must become like me not like your father” or “Please, become something very different from both your parents.” Or, among married couples, “You have to change, you have to see things my way or else this marriage is not going to work.”

It can begin with the urge to live your life through someone else’s life–to give yourself up in order to facilitate the next person’s fulfillment or the next generation’s well-being. Self-sacrifice often involves inflicting dreadful feelings of guilt upon the beneficiary, thus manipulating, even controlling, him or her.

If I had to choose between the two stereotypical mothers in the famous Jewish joke–the mother who says to her kid, “Finish your breakfast or I’ll kill you,” or the one who says, “Finish your breakfast or I’ll kill myself”–I would probably choose the lesser of two evils. That is, rather not finish my breakfast and die, than not finish my breakfast and be guilt-ridden for the rest of my life.

In a small way, in a cautious way, I do believe that imagination may serve as a partial and limited immunity to fanaticism. I believe that a person who can imagine what his or her ideas imply when it comes to the crying baby may become a less complete fanatic, which is a slight improvement.

I wish I could tell you at this point that literature is the answer because literature contains an antidote to fanaticism by injecting imagination into its readers. I wish I could simply prescribe: Read literature and you will be cured of your fanaticism. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Many poems, many stories and dramas throughout history have been used to inflate hatred and nationalistic self-righteousness.

Yet there are certain works of literature that, I believe, can help up to a point. They cannot work miracles, but they can help. Shakespeare can help a great deal. Every extremism, every uncompromising crusade, every form of fanaticism in Shakespeare ends up either in a tragedy or in a comedy. The fanatic is never happier or more satisfied in the end; either he is dead or he becomes a joke. This is a good inoculation.

Gogol can help, too: Gogol makes his readers grotesquely aware of how little we know, even when we are convinced that we are 100 percent right. Gogol teaches us that your nose may become a terrible enemy, may even become a fanatic enemy, and you may find yourself fanatically chasing your own nose. Not a bad lesson in itself.

Kafka shows us that there is darkness and enigma and mockery even when we think we have done nothing at all wrong. That helps. A sense of humor is also a great cure. I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor, nor have I ever seen a person with a sense of humor become a fanatic, unless he or she has lost that sense of humor. Fanatics are often sarcastic, but that’s different.

Humor contains the ability to laugh at ourselves. Humor is relativism, humor is the ability to see yourself as others may see you, humor is the capacity to realize that no matter how righteous you are and how terribly wronged you have been, there is a certain side to life that is always a bit funny. The more right you are, the funnier you become. And, for that matter, you can be a self-righteous Israeli or a self-righteous Palestinian or a self-righteous anything, but as long as you have a sense of humor, you might be partially immune to fanaticism.

If I could only compress a sense of humor into capsules and persuade entire populations to swallow my humor pills, thus immunizing everybody against fanatics, I might qualify one day for the Nobel Prize in medicine, not in literature. But just listen to me! The idea of compressing a sense of humor into capsules, the very idea of making other people swallow my humor pills for their own good, thus curing them of their trouble, is already slightly contaminated with fanaticism. Be careful: Fanaticism is extremely catching, more contagious than any virus. You might easily contract fanaticism even as you are trying to defeat or combat it.

You have only to read a newspaper or watch the television news to see how easily people may become anti-fanatic fanatics, anti-fundamentalist zealots, anti-jihad crusaders. Eventually, if we cannot defeat fanaticism, perhaps we can at least contain it a little bit. As I have said, the ability to laugh at ourselves is a partial cure; the ability to see ourselves as others see us is another medicine.

The ability to exist within open-ended situations, even to learn how to enjoy open-ended situations, to learn to enjoy diversity, may also help. I am not preaching a complete moral relativism, certainly not. I am trying to enhance our ability to imagine each other–on every level, on the most everyday level, to just imagine each other. Imagine each other when we quarrel, imagine each other when we complain, imagine each other precisely at the moment we feel that we are 100 percent right. Even when you are 100 percent right and the other is 100 percent wrong, it’s still useful to imagine the other.

Many years ago, when I was still a child, my grandmother explained to me in simple words the difference between Jew and Christian.

“You see,” she said, “Christians believe that the Messiah was here once and he will certainly return one day. The Jews maintain that the Messiah is yet to come. Over this,” said my grandmother, “over this, there has been so much anger, persecution, bloodshed, hatred . . .

“Why?” she said. “Why can’t everyone simply wait and see? If the Messiah comes, saying, ‘Hello, it’s nice to see you again,’ the Jews will have to concede. If, on the other hand, the Messiah comes, saying, ‘How do you do, it is very nice meeting you,’ the entire Christian world will have to apologize to the Jews.

“Between now and then,” said my wise grandmother, “just live and let live.” She was definitely immune to fanaticism. She knew the secret of living with open-ended situations, with unresolved conflicts, with the otherness of other people.

No man is an island, said John Donne, but I humbly dare to add: No man and no woman is an island, but every one of us is a peninsula, half attached to the mainland, half facing the ocean–one half connected to family and friends and culture and tradition and country and nation and sex and language and many other things, and the other half wanting to be left alone to face the ocean.

I think we ought to be allowed to remain peninsulas. Every social and political system that turns each of us into a Donnean island and the rest of humankind into an enemy or a rival is a monster. But at the same time every social and political and ideological system that wants to turn each of us into no more than a molecule of the mainland is also a monstrosity. The condition of peninsula is the proper human condition. That’s what we are and that’s what we deserve to remain.

So, in a sense, in every house, in every family, in every human condition, in every human connection, we actually have a relationship between a number of peninsulas, and we’d better remember this before we try to shape each other and turn each other around and make the next person turn our way while he or she actually needs to face the ocean for a while. And this is true of social groups and of cultures and of civilizations and of nations.

Not one of them is an island and not one of them can completely merge with the other. These two peninsulas should be related and at the same time they should be left on their own. I know it is an unusual message in these days of anger and revenge and fundamentalism and fanaticism and racism, all of which are loose in the Middle East and elsewhere.

But a sense of humor, the ability to imagine the other, and the capacity to recognize the peninsular quality of every one of us may be at least a partial defense against the fanatic gene that we all contain.

Israeli journalist and novelist Amos Oz has written extensively about a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Excerpted from How to Cure a Fanatic by Amos Oz. Essays copyright © 2002 by Amos Oz. Published by Princeton University Press.

Have something to say? Send a letter to This article first appeared in the November-December 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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